Buddhism originated in the life, teaching, and personality of a remarkable Indian sage, Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a petty king whose capital was at Kapilavasta in northern India. The life span of Gautama, who is called Buddha or “Enlightened One,” is usually reckoned as about 560–480 B.C.

According to traditional accounts, at the age of 29 Gautama saw in succession a decrepit old man, a dead body, a diseased person, and a calm recluse. Shocked by these “Four Passing Sights” and filled with a yearning to find release from the inevitable misery of existence, he forsook his sheltered life of luxury and left behind his beautiful wife and young son to become a recluse.

After trying various Hindu ways of salvation, Gautama adopted a rigorous asceticism involving such extreme fasting that his body wasted away to skin and bones. Rejecting this fanaticism for a “middle way” between self-mortification and self-indulgence, he began to eat again; and shortly thereafter, while seated in meditation, he attained “enlightenment”—he became a Buddha.

Soon Gautama had made the important decision to share his experience with others. He began to preach, and his first converts were five former disciples who had forsaken him when he had renounced extreme asceticism. Other conversions followed, and before long a brotherhood of 60 monks had resulted with Gautama at the head. Thus a new religion was born.

This Buddhist faith flourished for a few centuries in India until through certain circumstances it became practically extinct in the land of its birth. Meantime, however, it had divided into two main branches and had effected a missionary expansion which was to give it continued existence in many Asiatic countries.

Today, the Theravada (or Hinayana) branch of Buddhism predominates in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The Mahayana branch prevails in China, Tibet, and Japan, and to lesser extent in Viet Nam and Korea.

Estimates of Buddhist membership vary widely, but a Buddhist writer has indicated recently that 150,000,000 is “the figure which has a wide acceptance” (H. Nakamura in Kenneth Morgan, ed., The Path of the Buddha, Roland Press, 1956, p. 364).

Between the two major divisions of Buddhism there are fundamental agreements but also deep differences, although quite recently they have reached some measure of union in the World Fellowship of Buddhists. The motivation of this union seems to be a new awareness of world mission.

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This illustrates the fact that just within the last decade or so Buddhism has become “a self-conscious missionary faith” addressing itself to the Western world.


What claims can Buddhism make as a world faith in the contemporary situation? It can truthfully assert that in common with other high religions it has inculcated lofty ethical standards, such as honesty, sexual morality, and sobriety. It can point to its noble ideal of compassion for all sentient beings.

Actually, at the heart of Buddhist missionary propaganda is the contention that not Christianity but Buddhism is the religion of peace. Buddhists point to the record of wars and controversies of Christendom and the use of atom bombs by Christians. They insist that Buddhism has a much better record than Christianity concerning religious tolerance. In an article published in Ceylon, a Buddhist has charged that “Christianity is based and built upon the idea of vengeance” (Edmund Perry, The Gospel in Dispute, Doubleday, 1958, p. 211).

The sting in these words is not relieved by the fact that we Christians know this to be a very inadequate, though understandable, judgment upon our faith. It is possible, of course, to show that Buddhism has not been entirely free from intolerance, that Buddhist tolerance has often meant lack of zeal, and that Buddhists claim too much for their religion’s opposition to war. But it surely behooves Christians to look at our own record with repentance and with the determination to prove that Christ is truly the Prince of Peace.

Buddhism must be confronted and evaluated, however, not in terms of isolated elements of its missionary apologetic but as a total religious system. It is possible to see in Buddhism’s ideal of compassion and concern for peace some evidences that God has not left himself entirely without witness in the Buddhist world. But it is likewise true that the world view and basic presuppositions of Buddhism are irreconcilable with the uniquely authoritative revelation in Jesus Christ.

Over against the Christian faith in a personal God, who is Creator and Redeemer, stands the Buddhist denial of such a Deity. Buddhists often call themselves atheists, though at least in Mahayana the profession of atheism must be seen as one of a dialectic whereby the existence of objective realities is denied so that the great Buddha Reality may be affirmed. It is perhaps correct to include both branches of Buddhism in the category of identity-mysticism, since in either case there is ultimate absorption of the individual into the Absolute, whether this Absolute be conceived as the Cosmic Buddha Mind or Spirit (as in Mahayana) or hardly subject to any positive definition (as in Theravada).

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Opposed to the Christian view of the universe as created by God and moving toward the goal of his gracious purpose in Jesus Christ is the Buddhist concept of samsara, which means the endless (unless broken by Nirvana) chain of rebirths of individuals in successive existences and of universes in world cycles. According to this view, every existence depends upon a previous one and the present universe evolved out of the dispersed matter of a former universe. Buddhist statements of this doctrine of “dependent origination” sometimes resemble the writings of modern scientists (cf. Perry, op. cit., p. 203). But the inadequacy of the Buddhist view as a religious explanation of the world may certainly be questioned; for not only does it fail to discover a First Cause, but, unlike modern science, it specifically denies its possibility.

To the Christian this view robs history of its meaning, rendering it self-contained and without a goal. And if one adds to this the concepts of impermanence and nonsubstance which are basic to Buddhism, he finds it well nigh impossible to maintain the reality of the phenomenal world as well as history. Mahayana teaches the doctrine of sunyata, which is the void or emptiness, indicating that all things are but appearance. Although in a profound dialectical interpretation sunyata is understood positively as all-inclusiveness and indeed as the metaphysical equivalent of love, it looks very much like the reappearance of the Hindu maya or illusion by which phenomenal realities are denied. At any rate, it is incompatible with the historical and phenomenal realism of Christian faith.

This whole concept of samsara must be a matter of faith for the Buddhist, since it can neither be proved nor disproved scientifically. This is recognized by an erudite Buddhist, at least concerning individual transmigration, when he admits that “the doctrine of transmigration does not seem to enjoy any scientific support” (D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, Harper, 1957, p. 121).


The Christian is all the more troubled by the doctrine of karma which underlies the concept of transmigration. Karma is the law of cause and effect whereby one’s actions in a given incarnation determine his character and the state of his future existence. This Hindu concept was retained by Gautama and is still an important part of Buddhist religion. It is not only impossible of scientific verification but is morally offensive even to some Indians.

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It is true that Buddhism offers ultimate escape from the clutches of karma by the experience of Nirvana, which literally means “the blowing out” or “the absence of craving” but is interpreted by Buddhists as the positive experience of “emancipation.” In the mystical enlightenment of Nirvana the power of karma is broken, but karma itself contains no hint of Cosmic Forgiveness or Regenerative Power and is too mechanical and merciless to represent Cosmic Justice in a world of persons.

On pragmatic grounds, the belief in karma may be criticized for having hindered the implementation of Buddhist compassion. One might have expected that Buddhism’s concentration upon suffering as the central problem of life would have led to a robust effort at the relief of human misery and the correction of wrong social structures which breed and nurture it. As a matter of historical fact, however, organized efforts at social service on the part of Buddhists (e.g., the creation of hospitals and the like) appear scattered and desultory when compared to those of Christians; and where Buddhism has not been appreciably influenced by Christianity it has shown practically no concern for social reform. It is significant that in a volume of essays in which Buddhist scholars attempt to interpret their religion to the Western world (Morgan, ed., op. cit.), no reference is made to social reform, although attention is given to service and compassion. This deficiency is all the more regrettable when it is remembered that original Buddhism was revolutionary, at least to the extent of obliterating caste and including women in the monastic order.


The Buddhist remedy for suffering is not the changing of conditions which produce and perpetuate human misery but the individual enlightenment of the sufferer. He is to understand that desire is the cause of suffering and that the eradication of desire in the experience of Nirvana is its cure.

Enlightenment is certainly important, especially if it is based on truth and reality; but it is never sufficient to satisfy the social concern of the Christian who stands under the judgment of the kingdom of God and has the compassion for persons he has learned at the Cross.

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Yet Buddhism also is a religion of compassion, and it is at this point that it moves closest to Christianity. The Buddhist ideal is universal, all-embracing love for all beings. In Theravada Buddhism the motivation for this compassion is the desire to produce good karma and to express one’s identity with all that lives (Thittila, op. cit., pp. 94–96). In Mahayana, compassion seems more definitely based upon the self-sacrifice of Gautama the Buddha and of other Buddha-like beings or Bodhisattvas who have delayed the full enjoyment of Nirvana or Buddhahood in order to save others.

From the Christian standpoint, however, identity-mysticism tends to vitiate the Buddhist motivation to compassion. The import of the profound Mahayana doctrine of the Threefold Body of the Buddha is that phenomenal reality is but a secondary expression of the void or Absolute Reality; and the compassion or self-sacrifice of the Buddha Mind which is Ultimate Reality is actually “the impartial acceptance of all things as expressions of itself” (T. N. Callaway, Japanese Buddhism and Christianity. Tokyo: Shinkyo Shuppansha, 1959, p. 221). World salvation, therefore, is the Buddha Mind’s realization of itself. Likewise, the compassion of an enlightened Buddhist or a Bodhisattva is not loving service to other individual selves but acceptance of things as they are in the realization that ultimately there is no self to be sacrificed and no other to be served (ibid., pp. 219, 222; cf. Nakamura, op. cit., pp. 381, 395–396).

In the identity-mysticism of Buddhism there is no basis then for the salvation of society. There is nothing at all analogous to the great social ideal of the kingdom of God and the Church as the Body of Christ. And what looks like the self-sacrifice of Ultimate Reality (resembling the Cross) turns out to be more self-realization than self-sacrifice, and in any case mythical.

A young Japanese Buddhist once asked me the question: “If I should become a Christian, would I have to renounce my Buddhist heritage which I respect and appreciate deeply?” I replied something like this: “I too respect your Buddhist heritage and would regret to see it all renounced. Rather, I hope that in Jesus Christ you will find a new object of supreme devotion and a transforming experience by which you will see your religious heritage with new eyes. In His light some of your heritage will be negated but much will be transformed and fulfilled.”

Edwin Luther Copeland is Professor of Missions in South-eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina. Formerly a Southern Baptist missionary to Japan, he taught at the Seinan Gakuin University from 1949–56. He holds the B.A. from Furman University, the Th.M. from Southern Baptist Seminary, and the Ph.D. from Yale.

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